Perfect Game USA and the Future of Baseball: How the Remaking of Youth Scouting Affects the National Pastime
Les Edgerton makes a convincing case for how one organization has changed the process by which high school players get on the radar of colleges and professional teams. Perfect Game USA is the brainchild of Jerry Ford (not the late president), who opened an indoor baseball facility in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and began holding player “showcases” in 1993, at first locally and eventually nationally. The book is as much about Ford as it is about his national program and the growing industry of which it is a part. Perfect Game provides venues through which college coaches and Major League Baseball scouts can observe and evaluate the best high school baseball talent in the country. Perfect Game holds showcases throughout the nation, including the annual World Wood Bat Association Championships in Jupiter, Florida.
Edgerton lauds the program throughout the book, despite his claims that companies like Perfect Game (Area Code and Team One are others noted in the book) are making high school baseball increasingly irrelevant and youth select, or “travelling,” ball increasingly relevant. Edgerton says Perfect Game showcases give scouts and coaches a realistic portrayal of players in majorleague conditions. The use of wooden bats is one way showcases simulate major-league play. Another is the use of a “flat-seam” ball, similar to a majorleague baseball and unlike the higher-seamed balls used in youth and high school (86). On the other hand, Edgerton admits that one drawback to Perfect Game showcases is not allowing walks. “Once a batter has three balls, the pitcher must throw only fastballs until the at-bat is concluded by either a strike-out, hit or ground- or fly-out” (93). Thus, players have no way of showing (and scouts have no way of knowing) their knowledge of the strike zone, a knowledge which Edgerton admits is crucial to a scout with a Billy Beane-like philosophy. But such a rule has not deterred scouts and coaches from using Perfect Game showcases as a foundation for their player selections.
The emergence of showcases is causing repercussions for high school baseball programs, which Edgerton claims have “become almost irrelevant” and where talent for the most part “isn’t all that good” (39). Select baseball has taken over as the destination for the best youth players, and some of the nation’s more prominent select programs (such as the East Cobb program in Georgia) feed into Perfect Game showcases and participate in Perfect Game tournaments.
Edgerton says Perfect Game showcases have also changed the way scouts [End Page 196] and college coaches seek talent. Gone are the days when a major-league scout journeyed through the byways of America to observe a high school or town team phenom. Now Perfect Game can bring the talent to the scout or coach at its showcases; or the scout or coach can check the players’ showcase statistics on Perfect Game’s website, PGCrossChecker.com. Edgerton says that’s one of many services provided by Perfect Game, which has grown from the single indoor facility (which Ford still operates in Cedar Rapids) to a multi-faceted company. Besides PGCrossChecker.com, which has statistics and information on more than 25,000 players, Perfect Game also operates its own select leagues in Iowa, California, and Florida. Florida is also the location of Perfect Game’s baseball training academy. In addition, Perfect Game has its own sports medicine division and a nonprofit foundation to promote baseball to inner-city children.
As Perfect Game has evolved, so has the entire select game and showcase industry. The number of select baseball programs has exploded during the past decade, and Perfect Game has been among those to reap the benefits, partnering with Rawlings Sporting Goods, AFLAC, and ESPN. Rawlings provides equipment and other support, and AFLAC sponsors an annually televised game (the AFLAC Classic) featuring players selected by Perfect Game. Edgerton reports that the details of the partnership between Perfect Game and ESPN are being worked out (as of the printing of the book).
As proof of Perfect Game’s impact on baseball, Edgerton points to Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. In 2006, thirty-eight of the forty-four players taken in the first round had played at Perfect Game events, as did 72 percent of all players taken in MLB’s 2007 amateur draft. Overall, more than three thousand players who are alumni of Perfect Game events have been drafted by major-league teams, according to Edgerton.
While it’s hard to discount Edgerton’s characterizations of Perfect Game’s pioneering programs and positive influence on the game, Edgerton fails to fully address some of the social issues left in the wake of burgeoning programs like Perfect Game. For example, Edgerton provides some discussion on the lack of minorities in baseball and defends Perfect Game’s record of advancing black players, like Prince Fielder; but his discussion doesn’t examine how “elite” youth baseball programs and showcases are affecting minority youth participation and advancement in baseball. When Edgerton discusses other forms of youth baseball, such as Little League, he often does so in disparaging terms, noting that for any given Little League World Series championship team, “there are at least 200 select teams that would beat the champion with ease” (130).
Edgerton leaves no doubt about his belief in the importance and prominence [End Page 197] of Perfect Game. He spends more than one chapter advising players on how to prepare for a Perfect Game showcase. Edgerton takes several excursions into general baseball-related issues, such as steroids, and Dominican players. Edgerton also takes forays into his personal experience with Perfect Game. His sons played in several showcases, and he provides a father’s perspective.
While some of his side discussions are interesting, they also tend to fragment the book and make it seem disorganized. Short chapters and long rambling quotes by Jerry Ford and other baseball officials and scouts add to this sense of disorganization.
At best, this book is a revealing history about a youth baseball organization that has created fundamental changes in how baseball talent is exposed. At worst, the book is a promotional manual for Perfect Game and its growing presence in baseball.